Question for today: How can the federal budget deficits ever be brought under control as long as conservative superpatriots insist that the Defense Department is a sacred cow, despite endless examples of waste and mismanagement?

Put another way, how many overpriced ashtrays and toilet seats must Congress learn about before it realizes that the Pentagon brass hats are bemedaled equivalents of Imelda Marcos?

Here is yet another infuriating example of the military's let-'em-eat-cake attitude toward the long-suffering American taxpayers: the Defense Logistics Agency's Hazardous Material Technical Center. Originally budgeted for $3 million when authorized five years ago, the center has already cost $38.5 million -- with no end in sight.

Worse yet, a recent investigation by the Defense Department's inspector general found that the technical center isn't even accomplishing what it was supposed to. The IG's report, reviewed by our reporter Frank Byrt, concluded that the program benefits only certain consulting firms, and that certain contract awards have violated the law.

Nevertheless, the logistics agency plans to spend an additional $13.5 million on the misdirected, extravagant and ineffective project.

The technical center was intended to be a computerized clearinghouse for the latest data on hazardous materials, and to develop written procedures for the handling, storage and disposal of the toxic wastes generated by the military.

But the Pentagon wasn't even sure what it wanted. The IG's report noted that at the bidders' briefing, agency officials promised "to sit down with the succesful contractor to show him what we think we need, or partially need."

With this hazy direction form above, it's hardly surprising that the center managers soon shifted to special projects. "Due to the ease of adding new studies and tasks to the contract, {the managers} placed over 100 special projects totaling more than $23 million with the center without providing for full and open competition," the report states.

This was done by abusing "an open-ended provision of the contract . . . which we have found to be contracted for in violation of competitive procedures and law," the report adds.

Bogged down with all its special projects, the technical center was able to handle only 14 percent of the requests for help from Pentagon agencies. And it hasn't made even this modest amount of information available to the system's clients.

Predictably, the various defense agencies stopped asking the center for help and developed their own information sources.

The inspector general recommended that the technical center be discontinued because of the "questionable need" for its existence. If information on hazardous material continues to be developed through "special studies," individual contracts should be awarded on an open, competitive basis, the report said.

Did this blistering criticism discourage the Defense Logistics Agency? Don't be silly. Officials didn't challenge the facts in the IG's report -- but they disagreed with its conclusions and recommendations.